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How to Run a Table Topics Session: By Past President and National Topics Champion Bill Russell

May 11, 2013

In this post, Bill Russell, twice national champion for impromptu speaking shares his advice on how to run a great table topics session (impromptu speaking).

Is there a proper way to run a Topics Session?

Most definitely.  Because I love Topics and see them as the most influential thing we do for the majority of our members, I hate going to a club and seeing it done incorrectly.  I’ve been to Toastmasters meetings in the US, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the UK and it never ceases to amaze me how often clubs don’t get the significance of the task at hand.  Topics is often done as a parlour game, given just a few minutes time as an afterthought or not done at all.

Many times the TopicsMaster asks for volunteers.  Does your boss ask you if you want to answer a question concerning your productivity or does she simply ask it and expect a reply?  How we handle life’s tough questions is a direct indication of how successful we’ll be in life.

At too many clubs the TopicsMaster picks someone to answer the topic before giving the topic, which immediately means the rest of the room doesn’t need to listen and is cheated of the anxiety of wondering, “is this one for me?”  A Topics session is where we perfect our listening skills.  The topic should ideally be said only once, a member chosen and an answer delivered.  That’s how real life works.  We are expected to be listening intently in order to communicate and respond effectively.

My one exception to this rule is in getting a guest or an extremely jittery new member up on stage.  I have been known to give them their “impromptu” when they walk into the meeting.  This gives them time to prepare and start their career by making 1-2 minute speeches that allow them to manage the nervousness and build an initial base of confidence.

So How Should You Run a Topics Session?

Here are my top tips for a TopicsMaster:

  • Obey The Vaughan Evans Rule.  Vaughan made the point early in my Toastmasters career that every member should be given the opportunity to speak – at every meeting.  If you’re not on the programme as a speaker, evaluator or functionary you should be guaranteed a topic.
  • Be at the meeting early.  You need to have a membership list with you and start checking off the names of those members present who are not on the agenda in some capacity.  You should also ask guests if they’d like to participate in topics, if time permits. (Note: If the guest is a Toastmaster from another club, that person is “fair game” for a topic provided all club members will have time for a topic.)  This enables you to:
    • Choose your speaking order to ensure the best flow for the session.
    • Assign the best topic to each speaker depending on his or her ability.
    • Determine if a change in timing needs to be expressed to the audience and the timekeeper to fit in all the members in the allotted time.
  • Prepare challenging Topics.  If they’re not challenging you aren’t preparing the member for life’s difficult situations outside of the comfort-zone of the club meeting.  Let them struggle in a session and receive valuable feedback on ways to improve so that they handle the real-life equivalents with aplomb.  Save the parlour games for a Saturday night with friends.
  • Say the Topic then choose the Participant.  Topics is about listening, learning to handle the anxiety and giving the best answer in a sometimes-daunting situation.
  • Call on One Member at a Time.  I’ve been to too many clubs where 8 people are all called to the front of the room at the same time, waiting for their topic to be given and then, waiting for the others to finish before they get to sit down.  It clutters the stage, deprives the speaker of 25-70% of their audience and makes for an awkward situation that has no real-life usefulness.

Bill Russell

Bill started his career in Toastmasters as a Corinthian in 1995.  He was asked if he wanted to participate in Topics at his first meeting as a guest and won the coveted blue ribbon – and was immediately hooked.  Bill was a member from 1995 until 2010 when he moved to South Africa and served as our club President in 1996-1997.  He represented either London Corinthians or our Advanced Toastmasters club, Excalibur, in four District 71 Table Topics Championships winning the gold in 1999 and 2002.  He then “retired” from Topics competitions until moving to Southern Africa’s District 74 where he took 2nd place in the 2011 District 74 Finals – his first foray into competitive Topics in nine years.


Working or living in the LondonVictoria area? Want to know more about becoming a better public speaker? Visit London Corinthians on the 2nd, 4th and 5th Thursdays @ 7.30pm.

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